The Artist's Wife (2019) Production Notes

Director: Tom Dolby
Writer(s): Tom Dolby, Nicole Brending, Abdi Nazemian
Main Cast: Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Stefanie Powers
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 94 mins. / 1 h 34 m
Release Status: Complete

Claire Smythson, wife of the renowned abstract artist Richard Smythson, is plunged into a late-life crisis when her husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and is in danger of not completing the paintings for his final show.

Please note: Some production notes may contain spoilers.


Lee Krasner. Elaine De Kooning. Camille Claudel. Dora Maar. History is filled with female artists who have supported their more famous husbands or partners. The Artist’s Wife is a tribute to these women, a contemporary imagining of the journey of the stronger woman behind the man—and what happens when the relationship begins to crumble due to circumstances beyond either person’s control.

In our cinematic landscape today, the experience of the middle-aged woman as she enters the third act of life is often ignored. In The Artist’s Wife, Claire’s passage is about new beginnings, about rediscovering the parts of herself that she left behind during the early years of her marriage, as well as recognizing qualities she never knew she had.

Stories about women spending their lives supporting their husbands are not, rightly so, where our culture is oriented today. They may strike us as retrograde or as well-trodden ground, not worthy of exploration. In The Artist’s Wife, we wanted to reclaim this narrative, showing the tail end of this journey of living in—and coming out of—the shadows.

Though we see Claire making great sacrifices, with dignity, to the film’s conclusion, we know she has a future beyond that with her husband. Claire’s story, the part that we see, is one of commitment, of sticking with the life she has chosen, at least until circumstances change. My hope is that The Artist’s Wife honors the many women and men who have stuck by their partners, artists or otherwise, through challenging circumstances.

Though the film’s story begins with Richard’s disease causing the inciting series of incidents, The Artist’s Wife is not an “Alzheimer’s movie” in the traditional sense. Though there are many fine films in this subgenre, our story is instead about the caregiver, about Claire’s experience with the disease. Six years ago, I was inspired by what my mother went through in supporting my father in his struggle with Alzheimer’s. As the years went by after his death, I noticed that in film, the perspective of the caretaker was largely ignored. Whether one views our story as an Alzheimer’s movie or not, Richard’s dementia represents to Claire a call to reclaim her own past when it is, like his memories, in danger of slipping away. His illness prompts her passage into her creative soul, not initially to protect his dignity, but to save her own. These two goals collide at the end of the film, and she must make the decision that is right for her.

Society and popular culture have told us that the years around sixty are about slowing down, about retiring, a word that originated as meaning “to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion.” But why should the third act of life be one of retreating, repressing, hiding? My hope for Claire at the end of the film is that she is ready for a new chapter, one in which she will shine as brightly as her husband once did. “The problem with being constantly surrounded by bright lights,” she says, “is that they make you feel there’s already enough light in the world.” May the film’s narrative allow Claire to release this belief and let her talent run free, its brilliant beams lighting up the sky.


LENA OLIN (Claire)

Celebrated as a versatile, intense leading lady, Academy Award nominee Lena Olin is widely considered to be the greatest actress to come out of Sweden since Ingrid Bergman.

While still in drama school, Olin made an auspicious on-screen debut under the direction of the legendary Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman in Face to Face. She continued working with Bergman on stage and screen, playing roles in the films Fanny & Alexander (winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film) and After the Rehearsal.

Olin’s English language film debut was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which she played an artist, starring opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. This breakout role led to international fame, and Olin went on to work with directors such as Stephen Daldry (The Reader), Sidney Lumet (Night Falls on Manhattan), Roman Polanski (The Ninth Gate), Sydney Pollack (Havana), and Lasse Hallström (Chocolat). She has also been a leading lady to actors such as Richard Gere, Robert Redford, and Johnny Depp.

In 1989, Olin received an Oscar nomination for Enemies, A Love Story. She also received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress for that film. Olin has also received a Golden Globe nomination for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an Emmy Award nomination for Alias, and a BAFTA nomination for Chocolat.

On television’s Alias, Olin portrayed the iconic Irina Derevko, the mother of Jennifer Garner’s character. She currently stars in the television series Riviera as well as in the upcoming Amazon series The Hunt. Olin is married to the director Lasse Hallström and lives in New York.

BRUCE DERN (Richard)

In a long and distinguished career playing complex heroes and villains, cinematic legend and two-time Academy Award nominee Bruce Dern has worked with such iconic directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Dern’s revelatory portrayal of Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska earned him a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs. His turn in Nebraska also garnered him a Best Actor Award from the Cannes Film Festival and the National Board of Review.

Other notable recent performances include Quentin Tarantino’s films The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained as well as a recent turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His portrayal of Frank Harlow on the HBO hit Big Love earned him an Emmy nomination as well as a new generation of fans.

Known for his down-to-earth charm and willingness to take creative risks on screen, Dern has worked alongside legends such as John Wayne, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn, Kirk Douglas, Dennis Hopper, and Paul Newman. Dern received his first Oscar nomination for his heartbreaking performance as a Vietnam vet, playing opposite Jane Fonda in 1979’s Coming Home. He studied with the renowned Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

Dern is an avid runner, and estimates that he has run 110,000 miles in his lifetime. He and Diane Ladd are the parents of actress Laura Dern. In 2010, the three of them received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the only family in history to receive this honor in one ceremony.

TOM DOLBY (Director)

Tom Dolby’s feature film writing and directing debut, Last Weekend, starring Patricia Clarkson, was released in 2014 by IFC/Sundance Selects and called “Chekhovian” by The New York Times, with Ms. Clarkson’s performance hailed as “terrifically nuanced, heartbreaking, and often very funny” by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Tom is the founder of Water’s End Productions, where he and his team have developed a slate of narrative features and documentaries with the goal of supporting provocative and challenging human stories.

The company funded the development of the Academy Award winning film Call Me By Your Name, on which he served as an Executive Producer. Tom and Water’s End have also produced the critically acclaimed films Little Men, Regarding Susan Sontag, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, and Little Woods, among others. Upcoming projects include the teen comedy Sid is Dead and an adaptation of the novel Women in Sunlight, by New York Times bestselling author Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun).